Soon Yee Bak Kut Teh – Bugis, SG


Soon Yee Bak Kut Teh
No. 29/31 Sultan Gate
Singapore 198477
+65 6298 8538

If I had to choose among beef, chicken and pork, unquestionably the latter would be my most favorite animal protein. The diversity of cuts, textures, flavors, and the many ways it can be prepared, I feel is unsurpassed by the other two. “Just wrap it in bacon”, which could be dubbed the ‘Jeffrey Steingarten Porkosophy’, is used by many to explain how pork can add so much to the taste of any ingredient or dish. I must say I am an avid card carrying member of this Cult of Bacon.

Having spent some time in southern Alberta where I visited and toured countless times some of the province’s massive pork producing farms and slaughtering plants, I have had a good opportunity to learn about the whole gate-to-plate system that hogs go through in the mass commercial food production industry. It’s a marvel really, how such a disgusting beast that spends most of its life wallowing around in its own bodily messes, can taste so good when cooked. Even after seeing with my own eyes how they are brought to an abattoir, put to sleep, sliced open, broken down and boxed, I could not turn down offers to have a seat in a slaughterhouse test kitchen and be served various cuts of pork by the in-house chefs. Yes, I became quite immune to the whole ordeal, with my love for pork at the heart of it all.

My eating interests with pork though are limited mainly to the muscle meats. All of the other offal are something that I am not a huge fan of. But given the opportunity to try some Bak Kut Teh (translated literally as “meat bone tea”), a Chinese-origin soup that is popular in parts of the Mainland as well as southeast Asia and that I knew included some of the pig intestines, I knew that I had to be flexible. After all, I am always open to trying something that I’ve never had before, especially when I am traveling abroad. So this impromptu visit to Soon Yee, an average looking establishment built inside a concrete building near Sultan Gate Place in the Arab Street district (not far from the Bugis MRT station), led me to try those usually avoided pork innards.

Served in a clay pot, a single serving could be had for just four Singapore dollars. I chose to have a side of steamed white rice with it, as I understood it, you could also get some noodles instead as well. Visually, its not the most appetizing dish for obvious reasons. Pieces of the tenderized pork ribs, pig stomach, intestines, skin, along with other ingredients such as tau kee (which I know better as yuba in Japanese cuisine, albeit this one was a thicker wafer) and mushrooms that could all be seen inside the rich colored broth.

But when its brought to your table, the scent is quite appetizing with it being very fragrant with strong herbal tones (anise, ginseng and cloves being the most prominent) and some sharpness from the pepper. The soup itself (this type being of the Hokkien variety which is darker due to the inclusion of more soy sauce than other variants), was pipping hot and the pepper that I smelled was clearly picked up by my taste buds as well, making for a salty and fiery mixture. Each piece of ingredient had been well tenderized through the cooking process, which I assume is done over a long period of time to get it to this stage, though I must say that the meat off the ribs were my most preferred part. I guess some things never change.

My friend had a much more simplier dish, a similarly richly flavored soup filled with a bunch of greeny leafy vegetables, that looked like a type of lettuce/spinach. Unfortunately, I failed to catch the name of this offering, so this visual is all I can provide at this time.  As I was, he was also given a bowl of rice to go along with the dish.

Sushi Tei – Orchard, SG


Sushi Tei @ Paragon
290 Orchard Road, #05-12/18 Paragon
Singapore 238859
+65 6235 1771

Diversity in the available eating options in Singapore is world renowned. For most, it may conjur up images of the neighborhood coffee shop serving up that sweet spread on toast known as Kaya, the distinct flavors of South Area in the form of a spicy curry and Roti Prata in the Little India neighborhood, or that ever present Hainanese Chicken Rice offered up by a hawker stand in a suburban area. But sushi? It sure doesn’t quite fit into the preconceived set of representative Singaporean food. Despite this, I was surprised to see a fair share of restaurants specializing in Japanese food, though I had never attempted to try it here… until now.

While picking up some items in the Paragon Shopping Centre, I made my way to the top floor knowing there would be some restaurants there, and I was in dire need of satisfying my hunger late in the evening. As with most places, I am am willing to give things a try (and potentially take another “bullet for the team”). Sushi Tei, now in its 14th year of operations, is a Singapore-headquartered chain that has expanded to nine locations in their base country (with two more planned), an outlet in China, ten in Indonesia, one in Thailand, and one in Australia. From all appearances, each outlet is not a cookie-cutter model of the same looking design and layout. The Paragon location that I visited had taken clear influences from modern-style, izakaya in Japan, with its use of open spacing, dimmed lighting, clean lines and use of natural materials to accentuate the atmosphere. I could see how it could be popular with the twenty-something crowd, and it sure was packed with people in this demographic on this night, mostly groups of friends or couples out on dates. Now whether this is the age group that is driving the growth of Japanese cuisine in Singapore, I would have to investigate further to confirm.

As I was dining alone, I was given a spot along the counter facing the open sushi prep area that was in the centre of the room. Towards the back, was the actual kitchen, that was surrounded by banquet seating booths and other table/chair combinations. A large chalkboard was displayed prominently on one wall, outlining the daily specials. The crew in the sushi area was a trio of youths, which did not surprise me as I figured that was the labor they would be using in a place like this. Adorned in clear plastic gloves and visibly cutting the slabs of raw fish with ordinary kitchen knives, I knew that I should not expect much from the sushi. I could see that the bulk of their work was in making those dreaded rolls that everyone in the western world seems to enjoy so much and is what they consider to be sushi. The passing plates of sushi rolling by on the conveyor belt, also did nothing to convince me to give it a try, but alas in the interests of experimentation, I did take a few dishes.

sushitei_katsudo

I must say that I have never seen such thinly cut pieces of salmon on nigiri before – they were almost paper thin and reminded me of the thickness one finds with fugu sashimi. And the flavor of the salmon was so weak, it made me realize just how good the salmon is here in Canada. Just watching the crew go through the paces was amusing in itself. The manner in which they would hold the knives, the angle of the cutting motions they made, etc. it all made for a crystal clear view into the mass market, Japanese cuisine market here in Singapore and the level its at right now. To somehow save face, I ordered off the cooked menu and chose a Katsudon – in the hopes that at least they could get that right and it would have an ample layer of rice so as to help fill my hungry belly.

I suppose its my own fault for wanting to stray off the tried and true path by venturing into a chain-style sushi place. A matter of curiosity and convenience (I was staying nearby) got the better of me, as well as some desire to eat something non-Singaporean after a week into my Southeast Asia trip. Aesthetically, having a seat at Sushi Tei @ Paragon is a refreshing change of pace, and made me wish more Japanese restaurants in western Canada would invest in similar design features, and update their outdated looks. But for the food, I would rate what I ate at Sushi Tei as being around the same level as poor to mid-level sushi joints in BC/Alberta. And that after all, is the most important thing to think about here. Save your Sing Dollars for Sing Food la.

Jumbo Seafood – Dempsey, SG


Jumbo Seafood @ Dempsey
Blk 11 #01-16 Dempsey Road
Singapore 249673
+65 6479 3435

Let me begin this post by asking a question.  Does who you dine with influence the anticipation you may have of a restaurant, the food they serve, etc.?  This could also be asked of your impressions of the experience while it is unfolding, with that person(s) at the table with you.  Taking it a step further, does dining with someone in the “industry”, be it from the kitchen, front of staff, or related business side of restaurants have an effect on how you describe your meal later on?

On this evening, one of the people at my table was a professional business and marketing consultant in the restaurant industry based in Singapore.  I was curious to see how their opinions and comments on the food would affect the others.  It really was sort of like a social experiment, observing the interplay of discussions around the table.  Some of the others knew this person better than others, and it was clear that these personal bonds did have an impact on the rebuttals flying around.  Me?  I just played the role of Switzerland and just enjoyed the evening…

We ordered an assortment of dishes to get a wide range of flavors, and were comfortably seated in the outdoor section of the restaurant.  The place was incredibly busy and getting a free table took some time.  Darkly lit by some pole lights, the space was covered in a frame structure, that would support an automatically deploying canopy – quite the investment, and according to the consultant, conveniently paid for by a corporate sponsor who’s logo was prominently displayed on the outside.  Luckily, but not totally unexpectedly, I was able to observe the unfolding, once a few drops of rain fell from the skies and staff quickly scrambled to start the system.

Apologies for the quality of the images.  Taken with a poorer camera and in incredibly low light without flash, some sharpness was sacrificed.  The Crispy Baby Squid was one of the first to reach our table.  The sauce it was glazed with was an oyster sauce, and the texture combination between the crispy exterior and chewy inside of the squid was interesting, but not overly memorable.

jumbo_deepfried

The Donut with Seafood Paste, was one of the recommended dishes at Jumbo.  Essentially it is deep fried cuttlefish paste fritters, sprinkled with sesame seeds and served with a sweet peanut paste.  Much like the earlier baby squid dish, the mix of crispy and moist was the key here.  I suppose I liked this dish, as it was one of the more filling that we ordered.

Steamed Bamboo Clams with Minced Garlic, that were eaten with a light soy sauce and were a challenge to eat.  Each piece was strongly stuck to the shell and required some effort to cut free.  I thought they were a bit overcooked, contributing to the tougher, rubbery consistency of the meat.

jumbo_scallops2

Scallop Wrapped in Yam Ring, served with a sweet Ngoh Hiang sauce.  Yes, another deep fried dish.  The scallop was tender and plump, though I did not care much for the outer rim made of yam paste.  Perhaps by this time I was tired of the oily, deep fried component.

Amid all the seafood, the vegetables got lost in the mix.  Here, a basic serving of Gai Lan (Chinese Broccoli).

Golden Nest Salad Tiger Prawns with a sweet yogurt sauce, served in a crispy potato nest.  For me, mixing seafood with sweet tastes just never feels completely right.  I suppose I am the same with red meats.

This popular staple dish of Southeast Asia, Mee Goreng, is a mouthful of interesting flavors as aside from the yellow noodles, ingredients such as chili, vegetables, and seafood (in this case) are included.  As stomach filling as it usually is, by the time this rolled around, I was more than full.

But my table partners would not let me leave without sampling the Black Pepper Sri Lankan Crab.  I knew I had to compare this to the version at Long Beach.  The verdict, Jumbo comes in second based on the quality of the crab meat.  The overwhelming peppery sensation was the same though for both.  As special as this dish is supposed to be, I guess I will never be able to fully appreciate it fieriness, as I’d much rather enjoy the crab meat in its more natural tasting form.

The Dempsey location is now the seventh outlet of this seafood restaurant empire, and opened earlier this spring.  The area of Dempsey Hill is an alluring one, with its historical ties to the old army barracks, that have been transformed into modern yet still colonial-looking buildings that house a variety of restaurants and bars.  Driving around this maze though is an adventure, and parking is tight (a tip: park on the back side, where most people don’t really know about, its next to a nice jazz bar that I frequent when I am in town and allows you to keep a bottle with your name on it).  Bestowed with many industry and media accolades over the years, Jumbo is clearly one of the top players in the Singapore seafood scene.  The business consultant at our table had mentioned that the owners are still very hands-on, and one of them is always found at the Dempsey location.  With over twenty years established on their record for serving Singaporeans, its clear that they are still building towards more and more success.  Unfortunately, I probably won’t be one of their repeat customers, as I came away thinking it was not anything spectacular, ordinary in fact.  When the best dish was the Gai Lan, I must say that does not bode well for a seafood specialty restaurant.  I think some others were feeling the same way, but held their breath in front of the food consultant.  To each his own I guess…

IVINS Peranakan Restaurant – Bukit Timah, SG


IVINS Peranakan Restaurant
19/21 Binjai Park

Bukit Timah, Singapore
+65 5468 3060

The centuries long movement of people to the peninsula that forms present-day Singapore and the resulting interplay and mixture of cultures that has occurred is one of the most fascinating elements for a visitor to see in this true city-state, which forms the tiniest nation in this southeastern part of Asia.  As with most historical patterns of migration, the early Chinese who traveled to this region eventually settled down with the local people, in this case the Malays, and inter-married with the women of this culture.  The result is what is known as the Peranakan culture, and this phenomena has also helped transform the local culinary scene, with its exotic melding of the flavors of the Malays with the preparation styles of the Chinese.  If one were to summarize it in a simple statement, it would have to be that it is distinctively seasoned, and hits on all taste buds between sweet and spicy, and is certainly not subdued by any means – how could it be with such a generous use of ingredients such as ginger, chillies, and coconut milk!   Much like many things in Singapore, this mosaic is what makes for such an exciting experience, and makes this part of the world one of the most satisfying for dining out.

The main branch of IVINS Peranakan Restaurant is located on a narrow street in Bukit Timah, with a large open facing window to the road, which also provides for some very minimal parking.  From a North American’s perspective, the exterior looks very much like a strip mall with its bold signage rimming the top of the outer wall, suggesting that comforting home-cooked, family style type of dining establishment you sometimes see in such structures.  The rest of the interior is quite spartan, with spot lighting in the ceiling that helps to brighten the room just right.  The seating is quite open and tables are spaced closely together, which makes for some interesting chances to spy what your neighbors are eating.

The menu is a single paper sheet that is spread out in front of your as a table mat.  It is broken up by ingredient base: Ayam (chicken), Babi (pork), Ikan (fish), Seafood, Sayur (vegetables), as well as other sections that are labeled Other House Delights, Rice, Soup, Local Delights, and Telor (egg).  There is also a good mix of hot and cold desserts.  The dishes themselves are all quite manageable in proportion, so the ability to select several and share among a group is ideal.

We began our dinner with a Bakwan Kepeting, described as minced pork and crab meat balls with bamboo shoots in a clear soup.  The broth was very light and not as salty as I had expected.  The meatballs themselves were well cooked through and had a nice crunchy texture in them, I think it was fine bits of cartilage included with the meat.  Overall, a warm start to our meal.

The Sotong Hitam came next.  This was a small dish of squid that was stir-fried with a black sweet sauce.  A mix of both the squid body and the tentacles were included.  They were a bit tougher and chewy than I would have liked.  As well, it was the only sweeter tasting dish we had this evening.  It did not really interest me however, other than for the contrasting taste to the other dishes.

Garam Assam Fish Head, red snapper fish head with lady’s fingers cooked in a spicy tamarind gravy.  There was not an opportunity to select the level of heat, but believe this came in at about a medium level.  The curry was fairly rich and the fish head had plenty of white fleshy meat on it and around the next area, which could be found by digging deeply into the bowl.  It was served with steamed rice. Very satisfying.

This is the Nonya Chap Chye, stewed mixed vegetables cooked in a soy bean sauce.  It did say it was a medley of vegetables, but I think it was mainly shredded cabbage.  Seasoning was very bland.  I did not enjoy this at all.

Ayam Buah Keluak, this is the signature dish of Peranakan Cuisine. Chicken braised in a thick spicy tamarind gravy with buah keluak nuts.  Very distinctive flavors, and the chunks of chicken breast meat were tender and soft.  The curry was more runny than the one served with the fish head earlier, and probably a tad milder too.  Despite it being a feature dish, it did not blow me away in terms of flavors.

All in all, I suppose I did enjoy my meal here, mainly for the fact that I could get another chance to try Peranakan food, in what was a very popular place.   The highlight of the night for me was the Garam Assam.  I am quickly becoming a big fan of this dish whenever I am in SE Asia.  I am highly interested in exploring other hybrid types of cuisine out there in the world, so if our readers have any suggestions, I would be open to hearing about them!

Thasevi Prata – Jalan Kayu, SGP


Thasevi Food Original Jalan Kayu Prata
237/239 Jalan Kayu
Singapore
+65 6481 1537

The Jalan Kayu area is very well known by locals at THE place for Roti Prata – usually just called Prata by Singaporeans (although some of my friends also swear by the places on Upper Thompson too, especially for the sweeter variants of this dish).  In fact, that’s probably all this area is noteable for as the street itself is nothing special without the main shops that sell this particular food, that originates from the Indian Paratha.  In the morning, it is a staple of the breakfast meal, and here at Thasevi Prata you can see young teenagers grabbing a snack on their way to school, middle-aged men eating before they head to work, and even seniors who have plenty of time on their hands to enjoy a relaxed morning.  Parking is limited to the stalls along the same street, or to a pay parking lot just up the road.  For me on this day, it was a stopover for a quick bite, on the way to wake boarding in the Straits of Johor.

The setup is very simple.  You go inside, place your order, give them your table number that is painted on your table, and wait to have it delivered to your table.  Many of the tables have used cigarette cans, so beware of that if you are adverse to smoke while eating and pick a table more near the centre of the area.  As well, don’t expect much for service, as the folks inside are quite busy and generally not a cheery bunch.  They have a tendency to make mistakes with orders (as they did again on this day) and they’re not so speedy with rectifying problems.  Try not to raise a big stink, as they’ve been known to respond aggressively.

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